Original release: August 18th, 2002
Certificate (UK): 12
Running time: 92 minutes
Country of origin: Iran
Original language: Persian with English subtitles
Writer and director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Mania Akbari, Amin Maher and Kamran Adl
In 2011 a Saudi activist was arrested after posting a video on YouTube showing herself flouting its law against female motorists. Though freedom of movement is the kind of right which most of the world has enshrined in constitutional documents or traditions, it’s a liberty that this Islamic theocracy sees fit to withhold from the half of the adult population.
While Iran – a country which is in many ways to the political right of Emperor Nero (who executed his own mother for treason) – does not impose a similar ban, the Persian “republic” with “universal suffrage” is nevertheless infamous for its repression of women.
It’s a major theme in Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 Palme d’Or winning film, which takes place entirely in a car. Over ten chapters the life of a young, beautiful, freethinking divorcee comes into focus, with a cast of five passengers helping her to educe some of the (ahem) “idiosyncrasies” of Iranian culture.
The opening scene sees the unnamed driver, crested with a casual light veil and wearing sunglasses, running her precocious eight year-old son to a swimming pool in Tehran. He clutches his Braun bag (suggesting both machismo and the influence of Western brands) as they argue like a cantankerous middle-aged couple.
She, we learn, has recently divorced his father on the spurious grounds of drug addiction (there being no other lawful reason for women to get a marriage dissolved); he, like a little Lord Hamlet, is outraged on his Dad’s behalf. They talk with surprising candour about sexual politics, the son espousing a traditionalist credo obviously inherited from his Old Man, while his mother rebuffs it in terms (“You want me all for yourself… You’re just like your father”) which make few concessions to the youth or relation of her interlocutor.
It’s a remarkable scene, mapping the battle-lines of generation and gender without recourse to cumbersome analogy. The performances are impeccably naturalistic, whether by instinct or design. Amin Maher is outstanding as the bawling, raging, whining, remonstrating boy caught between a juvenile dependence on the feminine and the kind of manhood which seeks to dominate it. I was not displeased to find that their merciless badinage may have been less than simulated: Amin is actress Mania Akbari’s real son.
In the subsequent chapters, which are divided frivolously by a film-reel countdown accompanied by a bell, Akbari’s character chauffeurs a cross-section of female society. At the one extreme, a sanctimonious but kindly old woman gives a prattling account of her “many, many misfortunes”. Her lavish munificence (“I had twenty pillows, I swear… but I gave them all away!”) and obsessive piety also feature when silence or the driver threaten to interrupt the oratory.
The younger woman refuses to join the elder in prayer, despite her repeated petitions. But regardless of this and other insuperable generational differences, some wisdom seems to pass between them, its meaning transformed from the religious to the (feminist) secular: “the fewer ties you have the better you live.”
At the other extreme a hitchhiking prostitute delivers a guffawing lecture on the incorrigible disloyalty of men and the “stupid” credulity of their wives. Not whores but brides, she says, are the real wholesalers of sex and femininity – the real traitors to their gender. It’s another compelling scene, if perhaps implausible: could a woman in Iran – even a woman as iconoclastic as she- chat so casually with a turpitudinous criminal? But their discussion is more interesting than the question of authenticity.
In any case the form is already subverted by the spy-cam cinematography which, with the facetious chapter titles and documentary-style editing, serves to make Ten feel less like Direct Cinema than crudely edited surveillance footage.
The two static dashboard cameras shoot empty seats and remain intently fixed on one person while the other is unseen. Because we’re accustomed to associate the camera with life (whether it’s a handy-cam which lumbers and lurches like us or the instinctive movement from face to face in conversation), its stillness here is unnerving: a dead, psychotic, technological gaze.
While the film sees the car as a safe, liberating environment where women in patriarchal tyrannies can speak freely and behave as they please, this CCTV voyeurism reminds us that the eyes and ears of a paranoid dictatorship are never far away.
A bold formal experiment which carries meaning lightly through both medium and content, Ten is uncommonly watchable for minimalist cinema. What it lacks in narrative adhesive is made up with thematic integrity; and the warmth and naturalism of the acting irrigates any patches of intellectual aridity which the structural novelty or political pointedness may have caused. This is not to say it’s unduly political. If anything freedoms in Iran have being curtailed since 2002. Amin Maher, whose virtuoso performance is reason enough to watch the film, was imprisoned for wearing a green bracelet in support of the opposition during recent “elections”. He was 17 at the time.
Full marks to Kiarostami- a director who, twice hailed as the greatest in the world, hardly needs them- for making movies like this in a country like that.
Dominic is an English graduate, promiscuous dilettante and epistemological liability. He likes the sentimentalisation of loathsomeness, fetishized Teutonic Romanticism, the labour theory of value and Manchester United’s transcendent Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov. He abominates Certainty, curses The Wealth of Nations, and detests only mayonnaise more than asinine bathetic turns.
His favourite kinds of film are laborious, unyielding, laboriously unyielding, anything you’ve never heard of, and pornographic. At twenty-three, his achievements include A Spectroscopic Study of the Notion of Perineum in Jane Austen’s Later-Early Period, for which he won a MOBO award, and this sentence.